Rhetorics of Tznius in 20th- and 21st-Century American Bais Yaakov Schools

I presented the following talk at an international conference on Bais Yaakov, Bais Yaakov in Historical and Transnational Perspective, hosted by the University of Toronto in March 2023. With some edits for a different medium, you can read my talk below.

My main area of work is Haredi children’s literature, so my approach to tznius in Bais Yaakov is through texts. My research questions center on the rhetoric of texts produced and used for and by Bais Yaakov students and faculty. My preliminary conclusion from looking at texts between 1998 and 2022 is that despite appearances to the contrary, the rhetoric around tznius in Bais Yaakov schools and communities has not changed much over the past couple of decades.

I begin, as many discussions of contemporary tznius begin, with Rabbi Falk’s 1998 publication of Oz veHadar Levusha, with the English title Modesty: An Adornment for Life. While tznius was a part of Bais Yaakov chinuch before this, Rabbi Falk’s book codified many of the customs that were not seen as halakha beforehand. After the publication of this book, which sold tremendously well and spawned numerous editions, faculty (and students) were able to cite specific measurements that Bais Yaakov girls were expected to adhere to – for example, that a skirt had to reach 4 inches below the knee. Debates among students about skirt length began with that as a foundational point now, replacing debates of the 70s and 80s concerned with whether “knee-length” meant above or below the knee. In the 2000s, it was taken for granted that a skirt had to reach 4 inches below the knee – the question was just whether that 4 inches should be counted when standing or sitting.

In his preface to the daily-study edition, Rabbi Falk explains that he is happy that his book was received well and has influenced women and girls for the better. But then he says, “sadness is indicated by the very fact that a detailed sefer had to be written on this subject. In earlier times there was no need for a sefer of this type, because the Jewish woman and girl knew instinctively what was expected of her in terms of tznius and refinement…in this generation there is a serious spiritual pollution in the air resulting from the permissiveness and the misconduct of the world at large…” A common theme in discussions of tznius is how hard it is for the modern girl or woman to resist the amorality of the world around them – a talking point that’s not limited to discussions of tznius, especially when it comes to children’s literature and education.

Lest the contemporary reader feel like she’s being attacked by this, though, Rabbi Falk goes on: “Despite what has just been stated, the present day Bas Yisroel should not feel indicted and censured by this sefer. She is probably as worthy as her counterpart of previous generations, as she had to contend with a far greater exposure to bad influences and her nisyonos in this field are much more severe than those of previous generations.” Between this statement and the previous one I quoted, Rabbi Falk adds details to the “spiritual pollution” by saying that today’s mothers are not imparting the correct ideas about tznius, whether intentionally or not, and that girls following the example set for them at home are falling into this trap of spiritual pollution. He attempts to lessen the accusation against today’s girls and women by saying that they are starting from a lower level than their historical counterparts, who didn’t have to contend with all these negative influences. This isn’t necessarily a false statement, though it is definitely an exaggeration or a collapsing of many centuries into one idea of “the past,” a common theme in Haredi historiography. This rhetoric, though, is representative of how tznius is often talked about in Bais Yaakov today: striving to be as good as previous generations, looking to the past for inspiration, etc.

The next few texts I’ll discuss come from a Bais Yaakov High School shabbos in 2005. Every May, the school heads up to the Catskills to a summer camp for a shabbos. Each year’s shabbos has a different theme, sometimes based on a concept or mitzvah, sometimes based on a possuk. There are performances on Friday afternoon and motzaei Shabbos, workshops on Friday night and Shabbos afternoon, speeches from teachers, rabbis, and students at each meal, etc.

In 2005, the theme of the shabbos was tznius. The shabbos became notorious among Bais Yaakov schools, especially in Brooklyn, because a good number of girls wound up in tears by the end of the shabbos, overcome with fear that they would burn for eternity in gehinnom. This message came mostly from a Friday night workshop led by seminary students, whose scripts included lines about how each limb would burn for every moment it was uncovered in this life. 

I start with that just to give you a sense of why this shabbos holds so much importance in the discussion of tznius in Bais Yaakov. That rhetoric came from the seminary teachers and students. But what were the high school students saying? For that, we’ll have a look at two songs that represented the shabbos theme. Both of them center on the idea of “bas melech ani,” that a Jewish girl is the daughter of the king, i.e. God, but they come at the idea from two different angles.

The first song that Bais Yaakov students encountered during this weekend getaway was the theme song presentation on Friday afternoon. You can see here the rhetoric of being attacked by the outside world, which we saw in Rabbi Falk’s preface to his book. A sense of action pervades this song: tznius is not a passive mitzvah of quietly choosing the right clothing, this song suggests, but a battle – and we’ll see echoes of this in a moment.

The second theme song was performed on motzaei shabbos. This song, clearly, is far less aggressive. “Stand armed and erect” is about fighting; this song is about staying behind the walls. There are so many things I’d love to say about each of these lines, but two things I’ll point out here: First of all, there’s the emphasis on nobility again, on being part of a royal family, which directly informs everything about how the “princess” dresses, speaks, moves, even thinks. The second stanza of the refrain, though, is really fascinating to me for some of the underlying assumptions.

The first two lines “A princess secure for I live with the fact / I follow the truth and need no more than that,” seem to acknowledge the “more” that exists beyond the palace gates as something that’s justifiably alluring. Rather than completely deriding fashion and girls who are into fashion, the song concedes that following the truth might mean giving something up. This attitude appears in a number of other student-created texts, with sympathy for the girls who are struggling.

The second two lines are interesting for their inherent contradiction, something that shows up a lot in tznius rhetoric. If, as the next verses suggest, a princess’s “presence is rarely seen outside the gates,” how can she be a “confident leader?” What exactly does confidence and leadership even mean in this context? That’s left unanswered here, though it is addressed in many other tznius-centered texts.

The textual materials distributed at the shabbos carry on the themes of both these songs. One booklet titled “On the Battlefront: Sharing Common Battles” features short snippets of challenges girls faced and how they withstood temptation and remained tzniusdig. There’s a wide variety of incidents cited in the pamphlet, including those on the screen: not wearing earrings that dangled too long; not watching a “goyishe video”; giving up a sweater that rode up and showed the back; wearing tzniusdig clothing in a community where that’s not a norm; not drawing attention by saying something witty to her uncle; and wearing a nightgown even when classmates wore pajamas. Each snippet is followed by the tagline “another battle won.” Echoing the theme song about fighting, tznius is presented as an ongoing war, each single moment a battle to be fought and won in the war. 

Other material of the shabbos included a booklet containing rules as well as discussion about the ideology behind tznius. When the “why” of tznius is brought up, the songs focused on being daughters of the king and acting with “nobility and grace.” In this booklet, two main reasons are given: in the image on the left, the text says, “Casual, improper dress exhibits a lack of self-esteem and self-respect.” Interactive materials used in workshops took this same approach, asking students to evaluate whether they hang their self-worth on outer appearance and validation or on inner strength and beauty. In the image on the right, a number of answers are contained in what the writer seems to think is a cohesive answer. The idea of covering the body in order to focus on the soul is mentioned, but the text also seems to say “it doesn’t matter if you understand it, just know that it’s important.” I particularly love the line: “Do we understand why each limb must be covered? Can we fathom why a knee or an elbow attracts the attention of men?” 

The last bit from this shabbos that I’ll talk about is a booklet of stories and poems about keeping tznius. The booklet begins with a moshol, parable, about a king’s daughter who goes out into society and seems to disappear, because when the king’s men go to look for her, they can’t find anyone behaving the way a princess should. Stories following that highlight individuals whose tznius impressed great men; young girls inspiring older women with their tznius, like a young cancer patient more concerned about her body being exposed than the threat of dying; and a number of women sacrificing things for tznius, including the Chasam Sofer’s daughter praying to lose her beauty when she couldn’t do anything to stop men from looking at her. (A version of that story is also told about a tana’s daughter who prayed to have her beauty removed and was disfigured in a fire. The story is a trope, also indicating the collapsing of time in Haredi historiography that it can be applied in multiple time periods.)

One feature in particular, pictured on the screen here, is fascinating: an unattributed interview with a senior involved in planning the shabbos. The senior’s responses are enthusiastically positive, displaying the intended effect of the shabbos: joy and pride in following the laws of tznius. The effects of the shabbos do not match the sentiments in this interview, but this is an indication of the intent behind it and the conscious rhetoric around tznius.

Which brings me to the next “text”: Penimi.

Penimi was founded in 2013 and creates curricula in a variety of areas, including a junior high and high school curriculum for tznius. The stated goals of Penimi’s tznius programs are to “build positive associations with this special mitzvah – one that protects the grace and dignity of Jewish women, despite the degradation of the world around us.” These are the same lines used in Rabbi Falk’s 1998 book and in the 2005 BYHS shabbos about dignity and the outside world. So why does Penimi claim that theirs is “a refreshingly novel approach” which “offers students a view of the topic in a way they’ve never experienced before”? I have some thoughts about this, the main one being that Penimi’s approach is a reaction to the effects of previous tznius education that they’ve seen, not to the rhetoric of these previous tznius programs. The emphasis on dignity and grace in the face of a spiritually corrupt world has been a staple of tznius education since at least 1998. And while Penimi features testaments from students about how the program does inspire this positive enthusiasm for the mitzvah, we already saw how the 2005 BYHS shabbos made those same claims, demonstrably false at the time. So I don’t read Penimi’s student testimonials as pure fact.

The last two texts I’ll discuss are very recent: a song album released in 2021, and a picture book published in 2022. 

The Best Compliment is an album of songs about tznius produced by Mrs. Rivki Friedman. The songs are sung by a young boy named Baruch Zicherman, presumably because tznius as interpreted by Haredim includes a prohibition against women singing in public. Ironically, this leads to a young boy singing lines like “I never forget that I’m a princess…”

Two songs that I’ll comment on: Track 15, titled “Yiddishe Kinder,” is a riff on the popular Yiddish song “ven yiddishe kinder zitsen und lernen,” based on “kad yasvun yisrael” – when Jews learn Torah, god says to his heavenly court “look at my children, setting aside their own concerns and immersing themselves in my delight.” Here’s how that song appears on this album:

When Yiddishe kinder dress b’tznius [modestly]
And act in a way that’s refined
What is happening in shomayim [heaven]
At that very same time?

Hashem calls together all his malachim [angels]
And he tells them:
Look at my bnos melachim [daughters of kings],
What a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of god’s name].

Even in a world with pritzus [vulgarity] outside
A bas yisroel [daughter of Israel] knows
That she carries a neshama [soul] inside
That needs tzniusdige [modest] clothes.

Track 15, “Yiddishe Kinder”

First of all, there’s the switch from the boys’ mitzvah of learning Torah to the girls’ mitzvah of tznius: a rhetorical association of the two mitzvos, echoing the idea that tznius is to women what learning Torah is to men. The song also contains the same rhetoric as we’ve seen previously: that tznius is based on Jewish girls being bnos melachim, daughters of the king; and that tznius is in opposition to the pritzus beyond the bounds of the frum community.

The other song that I want to comment on is Track 5, “T’hei Isha Tzenua.” As with many children’s song albums, the songs are often introduced with a little dialogue. For this one, we have two friends talking. One tells the other about how her sister was baking the night before and, as she rolled up each chocolate rugelah, she said “please be chocolatey, please be chocolatey.” Her friend says, “That reminds me of the story of how Hashem created Chava. Every part of her that was created, Hashem said…” The first girl interrupts and jokes, “That she should be chocolatey?” and then asks more seriously “That she should be cute? smart? talented?” Her friend responds, “No! Hashem said t’hei isha tzenua – she should be a tzenua.” Adding on to the already-established rhetoric about princesses and shutting out the world, this song also suggests that other characteristics – like being cute, smart, or talented – are worthless unless there’s also tznius, that the main (and perhaps only) trait a frum girl should be concerned with is tznius.

In the 2022 picture book Proud to Be a Princess, obviously the rhetoric of royalty and princesses continues. The book tells stories of girls who overcame temptations, girls who were saved because they were extra careful with tznius, girls who were horrified to learn what their lack of tznius caused, etc. Some of the stories are well known and have made the rounds of Bais Yaakov schools for a while. For example, there’s the story of a young girl on Kristallnacht, trying to get through the streets to join her family in safety. She’s blonde-haired and blue-eyed, so she can pass as non-Jewish. She tries to blend in by opening her top button and exposing her collarbone, but she feels so uncomfortable with this lack of tznius that she closes it again. When she reaches her family safely and tells them this, her mother points out that she’s wearing a Magen David necklace under her shirt, so being extra careful with tznius actually saved her life – if she had left her top button open, the Germans would have known she was Jewish and attacked her. There’s a lot to unpack there, and that’s a side of tznius rhetoric I haven’t gotten into much today: the emphasis on being saved by tznius or, alternately, the devastating effects of not being tzniusdig. 

The introduction to the book, though, focuses on the idea of royalty and tells a story about Queen Elizabeth visiting New York in 2010 and wearing long sleeves despite the heat. Says the text, “Thousands of Jewish queens and princesses throughout New York, and across the world, were dressed that way too!” This focus on what real princesses and queens dress like is a common trope in tznius discussions. “Do you think the queen of England would ever wear that?” is a common question. 

Some not-perfect Bais Yaakov girls like to compile photos of contemporary queens and princesses to highlight the cherry-picking of royal outfits and the absurdity of saying “dress like a princess” when the wardrobes of today’s princesses do not conform to today’s standards of tznius. 

But the truth is that the truth doesn’t matter. It’s not about the actuality of royalty. The argument is not that Jewish girls should look to real-life princesses and queens as examples. What’s important is the use of royalty as a rhetorical device to convince Bais Yaakov girls that these rules are not restrictive, that counting inches is not something to be dreaded but something to cherish as part of a frum girl’s status as royalty, on constant guard against the pritzusidge world around her. The outcry for a need to present the mitzvah of tznius more positively continues to result in the same rhetoric, though, in what by now has become a cyclical pattern.


Joy and Accomplishment: Creative Assignments Teach Better Than Essays

I’ve been including a creative assignment in most of my classes for a while now. Most of the time, this creative assignment was a quick, fun project, meant to be an easy 10 points towards students’ final grades.

The basic assignment asked students to choose a text we had read, gather thoughts and notes around a single aspect or lens – using class notes – and then use a creative medium to represent an interpretation or understanding of the text: a poem, a short story, a painting, a Lego diorama, digital art – anything at all. I would emphasize that I’m not grading their artistic ability (“stick figures are fine!” is a constant refrain) and that I’m more concerned with their accompanying 250-word written reflection explaining their choices and process.

I gave full credit to every student in each class, with only three exceptions (one who clearly based their artwork on a SparkNotes summary and had not read the text, one who thought the assignment didn’t have to be related to any texts we had read, and one who submitted an image they had downloaded from a Google search).

This semester, I expanded the creative assignment in my composition classes. Rather than a freebie easy assignment, I designed the assignment to be a culmination of the research and critical thinking skills students would have learned all semester.

I had designed my syllabus this semester around children’s literature, with the goal of teaching students how information can be presented in many different ways depending on genre, format, audience, and purpose. We looked at non-fiction picture books, biography picture books and chapter books, and historical fiction, all the while thinking about how authors and illustrators used various techniques to evoke specific emotions and attitudes in the readers.

Pluto's Secret: An Icy World's Tale of Discovery: Amazon.co.uk: Weitekamp,  Margaret, DeVorkin, David, Kidd, Diane: 9781419715266: Books
Pluto’s Secret by Margaret A. Weitenkamp and David DeVorkin, illustrated by Diane Kidd

We read Drs. Myra Zarnowski and Susan Turkel’s 2013 essay “How Nonfiction Reveals the Nature of Science” (Children’s Literature in Education 44.4) and Joe Sutliff Sanders’s 2015 essay “Almost Astronauts and the Pursuit of Reliability in Children’s Nonfiction” (Children’s Literature in Education 46).

For their first paper, students wrote a short essay analyzing a nonfiction picture book through the lens we developed reading Zarnowksi and Turkel: Does the book emphasize the nature of science as they describe it, or does it simply provide facts? Does it emphasize inquiry or authority? Etc.

For their second paper, students wrote a slightly longer essay analyzing a children’s biography through the lens of reliability and inquiry again. After a class visit from the college’s librarian specializing in children’s literature and education (the amazing Dr. Alison Lehner-Quam), students found a children’s biography and researched the person discussed in the children’s text. They then compared the two accounts – one written for children and one written for adults – and wrote an essay about the details included in or left out of each version, about the emotional undertones and the conclusions in each text, etc.

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

In the third and final unit of the semester, we read a historical fiction novel, Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice (1991). We spent two weeks reading the book and discussing the various rhetorical moves the author makes. (I had given a conference presentation on the book a few years back, so it was a really nice return for me as I encountered all my marginal notes from back then…)

As a medieval and children’s literature specialist, I was in my element: I could provide lectures on medieval features and historical accuracy in the book, as well as lectures on current research on children’s literature as it affected our reading of the book.

When we finished reading the book, we read the author’s historical note, looked at the sources she provided in the book and on her website, and read some interviews in which she discussed the historical basis and her intentions for the book.

With all this in hand, I assigned the final project. This would be a creative project, but it would involve a lot more work than the previous traditional essays had.

To start with, students chose a topic from the book. Many chose medieval pregnancy and childbirth, since those were the main focus of the book. Others wanted to focus on medieval medicine more generally, medieval superstitions, medieval attitudes toward animals, medieval trade and market/fairs, and medieval inns.

For a full week involving two class sessions (via Zoom) and a written homework assignment, students researched their topic. At this stage, we reviewed the foundations of research (choosing and revising keywords, adjusting filters in database searches, using the bibliography of one source to find others) and the skills of identifying reliable sources. The written assignment asked students to submit two potential sources cited in proper MLA format, along with a few bullet points of details they found interesting in each source.

The next week, we focused on turning students’ research into creative projects. I provided an example of turning my own research into short story ideas:

I invited students who already had some ideas to share them with the class so that I could respond and model how they might think about deepening their projects and taking active control of how they were shaping their narratives. Students planned digital art, short stories, and poems – one even planned a video. I then put them into breakout groups where they had a chance to bounce ideas off each other and get started on making their projects.

We had one more session of presenting works in progress for feedback, and then the semester ended. Students had one more week, during finals week, to finish up their projects and submit.

The results of this assignment were amazing. More than any traditional essay I’ve done, even when I’ve invited students to write about a topic they care about, students were invested from the start. They were willing to do more work and to redo any step multiple times until they got it right.

I’m used to students resisting or even just ignoring me when I point out that their sources are not reliable. But this time, students displayed an intense desire to get things right.

Having spent an entire semester critiquing others’ work for accuracy and interpretation of facts, students seemed to be eager to create their own art or stories with as much historical and emotional accuracy as they could. Students read more complex articles than most of my first-year composition students are usually willing to read – and they spent time re-reading to make sure they understood them! Practically an unheard-of thing in my experience.

The stories and artwork students submitted, along with a 2-page reflection explaining their artistic choices, surpassed all my expectations.

There was a story about a prince’s wet nurse who struggled with leaving her own son in order to care for the royal son; a story about a commoner who falls in love with a noble who spurns her when she gets pregnant, and her struggles to hide her pregnancy and ultimate support from women during labor and birth; a collection of images drawn from medieval manuscripts to depict the journey from marriage to childbirth and associated rituals for a noblewoman; original pencil drawings to depict ideas about superstition and religion; a play about a Moroccan merchant coming to England to trade; and a meme-ified video with a text-to-speech narrator titled “why medieval childbirth sucked.”

Reflections included nuanced considerations of how the point of view affects the emotional impact of historical facts, how dialogue adds to the interpretation, how visual elements portray facts and attitudes, etc.

The creative projects and reflections also demonstrate joy and enthusiasm – and I enjoyed them too! I’m not used to enjoying the process of grading final papers. It’s usually a chore that I get done so that I can submit final grades. But this time, I got excited each time my email notifications pinged and I saw another submission from this class.

A good number of students addressed me personally in their reflections, telling me how much they enjoyed this project and how much they had learned. Their reflections, though not traditional essays, displayed more organization and development than I’ve come to expect from first-year writing students, more than the two essays they’d written for me in the moths prior.

I can safely say that I will be incorporating this kind of assignment into as many classes as I can in future.

Family History

Sometime over this past year / century of the pandemic, I spit into a little tube and sent my saliva to Ancestry’s DNA lab to have it analyzed.

The results were as expected: 100% European Jewish.

It’s not like that came as a complete shock. It may have been cool to have some weird result so that I could speculate about infidelity in my family tree. But I knew where my grandparents came from: on my mother’s side, Russia and Poland; on my father’s side, Austria and British Palestine. All of those Jewish communities have roots in medieval Ashkenaz, so of course that’s where our origins are.

But I get a little obsessed with family history every now and then. And at the time, I was looking for things to do so I could justify not working on my dissertation, which seemed huge and undoable.

So I bought a subscription to Ancestry’s records and started building a family tree, using all the documents I could find to flesh out the details. Although the records didn’t give me much new information, it was still exciting to see ship manifests and naturalization documents showing my ancestors’ passage and acclimation to America.

Family history has always been important in my extended family. More than one wall of our dining room was devoted to portraits of ancestors, and we often talked about our family tree. One of my uncles allegedly built a family tree that traces back to Rashi on my mother’s side, but I’ve never seen the document nor heard of its existence since about fifteen years ago. On my father’s side, our claim to fame is being descendants of Reb Shmiel Chait, or Shmuel Schneider, who was (so I was told) an esteemed rabbi and tailor in Jerusalem. Yichus, after all, is gold in the frum world.

My maternal grandmother was notorious for telling stories about her childhood in Tomaszow and her Holocaust years spent in a Siberian labor camp after she was caught smuggling sugar across the Polish-Russian border – often the same stories, told with the same phrases and knaitches each time.

In the slideshow above:
Bobby with her Bernstein grandchildren over the years, and serving ice cream at the annual Chanukah party hosted in her Boro Park apartment, ca. 1992.

My maternal grandfather died before I was born, and we somehow never heard stories about him – I’m not even sure he grew up in Russia. I know he spent some time in Chernobyl, but that might have been for yeshiva. I don’t know where he was during the war years, but I know he had a brother whom he lost contact with during the war and was never able to track down. I sometimes get a little excited when I hear about someone else named “Hardt,” thinking it may be Zaidy’s long-lost brother’s family.

Bobby and Zaidy met and married in the DP camps after the war, where they had their first child, my Tante Sara, and then immigrated to America.

The documents below record the overseas journeys taken by Fiszel and Feiga Hardt, my grandparents (1951); Sara Hardt, my aunt (1951); Boruch Goldstein, my great-grandfather (1957); and Nachum Goldstein, my great-uncle (1957). They are all listed as of Polish nationality as well as Jewish. My grandfather’s occupation is listed as “none,” my grandmother’s as “saleslady in foodmarket,” which she definitely wasn’t, and my aunt’s as “child.” My grandparents and aunt are all sponsored by the HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

In the second document in this slideshow, the manifest of a ship leaving Munich, Germany, on March 24, 1957, the person listed above my great-grandfather Boruch Goldstein (occupation “rabbi”) is sponsored by a Joseph Bernstein. No relation to my father’s family, as far as I could tell… But I did find some interesting connections between my maternal and paternal families from before they’d ever met, which I explain at the end of this post.

From family lore, I know that the reason my great-grandfather Zaide Boruch came over six years after my grandparents was because he had tuberculosis. Oral history says that Uncle Nachum actually sailed to America in 1951 with my grandparents (though I couldn’t find his name on the same ship manifest), and went back to Germany to fetch his father when Zeide Boruch was finally cleared for a visa. None of that is supported in the documents I could find, but of course Ancestry’s records can’t be the final say in the non-existence of those records.

The naturalization cards for my grandparents list two different addresses. I assume that the “1913 Bergen Street” on my grandfather’s card is an error, since all other documentation lists “1915 Bergen Street.” There’s a possibility that they moved two houses down, but certainly not between the morning of August 28, 1958, and the evening…

The coolest thing about my grandmother’s naturalization card, to me, is her signature. It’s exactly the same handwriting as all those little notes she would leave near the telephone, the pad with all her children’s and grandchildren’s phone numbers… A real blast from the past, coming from even farther back in the past.

My paternal grandparents rarely talked about themselves or their family histories. They lived in Israel, and we saw them only on rare occasions. My childhood memories of them are mostly being coaxed to talk to them – complete strangers to me – on the phone every Erev Rosh Hashanah, answering their questions about school and saying “amen” to their brachos, and then passing the phone to the next sibling in line. They had visited for a few months when I was a baby, but I had no memory of that. I got to know them a bit better when my family took a month-long visit in October of 1994, and when plane travel became more common and less expensive, they visited America more often, usually for Pesach.

They still didn’t talk much about themselves. Saba was harsh and abrasive, demanding perfection and rewarding it with a pinch on the cheek that stung for hours afterwards. Savta was quiet and soft-mannered, plying us with her apple strudel and watching us play with a quiet smile.

What I knew about their pasts came entirely through my parents. My own father wasn’t very talkative either, but my mother told us all about her in-laws. Saba had grown up in Yerushalayim, and wasn’t affected by the Holocaust. Savta had grown up in Vienna, Austria, and she and her brother – my Great-Uncle Moishe – had been evacuated via the Kindertransport and spent the war years in the countryside of Scotland. Their mother had joined them somehow, and they all took a ship to America after the war. On that ship, Moishe had met a nice young man named Yaakov Shimon who was on his way to America for a visit from his home in Israel. Moishe liked Yaakov Shimon, introduced him to his sister Batsheva, and the rest is history – or in any case, one of the branches on my family tree.

In the slideshow above:
Saba and Savta visiting from Israel in 1988, with a bonus appearance from Savta Chaya, my great-grandmother.

When I was around fifteen years old, Saba and Savta visited for Pesach. My older sister and I moved into our younger sisters’ bedroom so that my grandparents could sleep in ours for the first days. They would go to our cousins for chol hamoed and the second days, because there was an actual guest bedroom in their Midwood house. Our temporary bedroom change wasn’t for very long, and I left the book I had just finished reading on my nightstand.

The book was Far From the Place We Called Home by Sarah Schleimer, a book of historical fiction following a group of boys who flee Germany via the Kindertransport on the eve of war and spend the years of the Holocaust in the Scottish countryside.

My grandmother read the book during the first day of Pesach, when she was supposed to be having her afternoon nap. That night, when the men were in shul and it was too early for the women to start washing up from the first Seder and the first day’s seudah, Savta sat down next to me on the couch and took my hand in hers.

She told me how the book got everything right, from the emotions surrounding leaving her home for the strange unknown to the hostility the children faced from their Scottish hosts when they insisted on eating kosher and keeping Shabbos. She told me then how her host family sponsored her mother’s visa, claiming that they were hiring her as a cleaning woman.

I asked her where in Scotland she’d stayed. She refused to tell me.

“Do you still have contact with your host family?” I asked. “Maybe I’ll get to visit there one day.”

My soft-spoken Savta suddenly became animated and spoke with uncharacteristic vehemence. “Never go back there!” she said. “They saved us from the Nazis, but they’re hardly any better.” She wouldn’t tell me why she said that, wouldn’t give me any more details on her experience there, and my questions seemed to have dried up the well of memories she was willing to share with me.

I’ve always regretted that. I wish she had given me more details, more stories. I do wish I knew where she had spent her war years, because – despite her command never to go back there – I love Scotland and would like to visit the place she spent those crucial years of her life.

I hoped to find that information in Ancestry’s records, but unfortunately, they tend to have access to few records from outside America, even when I did splurge and buy a temporary subscription to global records.

The records I did find confirmed the family lore of Moishe Billet, my grandmother’s brother, meeting Yaakov Shimon Bernstein on the ship to America. I was not able to find my grandmother’s or her mother’s name on any ship manifests, but Moishe (listed as Joseph – his full name was Moshe Yosef) and Yaakov Shimon (listed as Jacob Simon) were certainly on the same boat in 1949 – although their destination was Israel, not America. They sailed on the Neptunia in August 1949, departing New York and bound for Haifa.

The documents below record ship passages of Brenda Bernstein (my grandfather’s mother), Rachel Bernstein (his sister), and Jacob Bernstein (my grandfather), in 1941 from Port Said to New York; my grandfather’s registration card from 1941; the page from the Neptunia‘s 1949 manifest showing both Joseph Billet and Jacob S. Bernstein; and a page from the Laguardia‘s 1951 manifest showing Jacob Simon sailing from Haifa back to New York.

When I first found the registration card with the name Jacob Simon Bernstein, I wasn’t sure it was my grandfather’s. As far as I had known, he didn’t come to America until after the war. When I found the ship manifest for him, his mother, and his sister – with the same address listed on both documents – I knew it was his.

But noticing the address led me to something else. I began to map the addresses of my grandparents and their sponsors in America – all in Brooklyn. (I omitted the HIAS address.) And I discovered that, long before my mother and father met, their two families lived within mere blocks of each other.

With one exception, all the addresses on my ancestors’ documents are within the same few blocks of each other.
  • 354 Saratoga Ave
    • Listed on:
    • Registration card of Jacob Simon Bernstein, 1923; other person living there: Hyman Bernstein.
    • Ship manifest of “Neptunia,” traveling from New York (August 10, 1949); US Citizens and Nationals, Jacob S. Bernstein, returning permanently to Israel.
    • Ship manifest of “LaGuardia,” from Haifa, Israel (June 14, 1951) to New York (June 29, 1951); Jacob Simon Bernstein, age 27.
  • 331 Thomas S Boyland St
    • Listed as 331 Hopkinson Ave on ship manifest of “El Nil,” traveling from Port Said (Sept 5, 1941) to New York (Nov 28, 1941). Passengers listed as US Citizens: Brenda, Rachel, and Jacob Bernstein.
  • 415 Lefferts Ave
    • Listed on manifest of ship “Neptunia,” sailing from New York (Aug 10 1949) bound for Haifa, Israel. US Citizens and Nationals, Joseph Billet.
  • 1915 Bergen St
    • Listed on ship manifest MIFLY(?) from Munich/Reim, Germany (March 24, 1957); carrying Nachum and Boruch Goldstein; address is of sponsor Mrs. Feiga Hardt.
  • 1913 Bergen St
    • Listed on Naturalization papers for Fiszel Hardt, Aug 28, 1956 (likely a mistake and should be 1915 Bergen Street as the others?)

So what does all that mean? What did I learn about my family from doing all this? Not much that I didn’t already know or that will affect my life in any meaningful way. But it’s still cool.

Maybe someday I’ll devote more time to this, maybe someday I’ll enlist a genealogist to help me find out more information. Maybe, even, someday I’ll find out where my grandmother stayed in Scotland. Maybe someday I’ll move there and use that location to live out my dream of living in the Scottish countryside and becoming the village witch.

I stopped this research and cancelled my Ancestry subscriptions when this brief dive into my past helped me get over the writer’s block I had been experiencing, when I was able to finish and defend my dissertation, edit a collection of essays on artifacts of frum childhood, and begin preparing a book proposal about frum children’s literature.

It’s all part of exploring my past, really, all part of making sense of who I am and where I come from – and where I plan to go from there.

One thing I did discover – one of my cousins is clearly also building a family tree on Ancestry. The website keeps giving me “hints” about people I put into my tree, which is how I found the birth and death dates for some of my third-greats on my mother’s side. Their tree includes names I recognize as belonging to the family of my Tante Sara’s husband, Moshe Leib Laufer, a Bobover chossid. I’ve resisted reaching out or requesting to connect via Ancestry, because of the shaky ground my relationship with family is on at the moment. So whichever Laufer cousin is illicitly using the internet to build your family tree and inadvertently giving me information about my own family tree – thank you.

Sleepover Shenanigans

In elementary school, after a few debacles when girls used birthday party invitations to snub other girls, as pre-teens will do, a rule was created: either the entire class is invited to  your birthday party, or you don’t invite any classmates at all.

For those same social-regulating ends and for reasons of not pretending like a girl’s bas mitzvah is the same as a boy’s bar mitzvah, all bas mitzvah parties were forbidden. My mother, sister, aunts, and female cousins threw me a party anyway, but no classmates were invited.

It never really occurred to me to question the school’s right to limit our out-of-school activities.

A Bais Yaakov teacher is not just an educator of regular school stuff but is also a spiritual guide and judge. Her duty is to mold the bas Yisroel to be the best she can be, and that means having a say in every part of her students’ lives.

But the absurdity struck me when I was teaching eighth grade in my former elementary school.

In my second (and last) year of teaching eighth grade, one of my classes came to me towards the end of the year with a dilemma. They had been in the process of arranging a graduation sleepover for the whole class. Everything was arranged, and then somehow one of the principals found out about their plans.

She said “b’shum ofen,” in no way possible could they have an unsupervised sleepover. If they wanted to do this, they had to find a member of the hanhala who would agree to stay and supervise the entire night.

They had asked many teachers, of course sticking to the younger and unmarried ones, but no one even considered it. They were mostly amused that the girls expected a teacher to consider something like that. So they appealed to me to come at 11pm and stay until 7am, when the hostess’s mother would wake up and take over.

I agreed.

I went to the principal and told her I had agreed to supervise. She looked at me in disbelief and laughed at my naiveté. I just stood there, totally confused.

She sighed. “I only told them that because I didn’t think any teacher would agree to do something like this!”

“Oh. Um…I mean, it’s not a problem for me to do it, if they want to have their graduation sleepover…”

“Well,” she said, shaking her head in chagrin, “there’s nothing we can do now. I told them they could have their sleepover if they find someone, so we have to let them do it. It’s a shame. This sleepover should never happen. Who would have thought any teacher would agree!”

I almost pointed out that if she wanted that to have happened, she should have warned the teachers before the girls asked us. But then I realized that every other teacher had implicitly understood, as evidenced by their amusement at the thought of the request. Rather than further revealing my own misplaced hashkafos and priorities, I kept quiet.

At the sleepover, as you might imagine, very little sleeping happened. The girls engaged in all kinds of shenanigans, and my supervision was sorely needed. I confiscated two cellphones and a Gameboy. And then pretended I didn’t see right through it when a couple of girls delightedly lied to me about what a DS is, once I had revealed my ignorance. I may not have known exactly what it was, but it was some kind of electronic game, wasn’t it?

I should have confiscated it. But that was the principal’s “should,” not mine. So I just left the room and “didn’t hear” their shrieks of “Oh my God, I can’t believe she doesn’t know what this is!”

Sometime around 3am or so, I got pulled into a conversation with three or four girls about the merits of eating glue. Don’t ask, I have no idea what was going on. One girl spun a whole yarn about how she used to regularly eat glue, only to reveal at the end that she is a disturbingly good liar. And I found out a few days later that one girl used her camera to video me. I lost a lot of dignity and had a lot of fun.

Most of my time that night was spent making sure the basement door stayed closed and the noise level didn’t reach too far above deafening, so the parents sleeping two floors above would stay that way. I spent some time convincing girls to move into the other room if they wanted to make noise so that the girls who wanted to sleep could have quiet, and then convincing the girls who wanted to sleep that they probably actually didn’t want to sleep at their once-in-a-lifetime graduation sleepover.

The next afternoon, at graduation practice, you could totally see the effects of the terrible sleepover. They were all sleepy-eyed, and girls who hadn’t spoken much to each other all year spent much of the practice time with their heads resting on each other’s shoulders. These “unruly teenagers” who the principal didn’t trust alone at a sleepover had used the opportunity to build their achdus and ahava for one another. She should have been proud.

Rabbi Goldstein, DDS

If there’s one rabbi I remember with fondness, it’s Rabbi Goldstein. When he moved to California, when I was in high school, I think, the whole community felt the loss. He passed away a few years after that.

He was the principal in charge of the younger grades – first through third grades. He was always smiling, always gentle and soft-spoken and always had time to crouch down next to a girl who needed a little extra attention, with his flowing white beard, his sparkling eyes, his long black frock.

There were many traditions Rabbi Goldstein instituted. One was the lunch song, which I find myself singing in my head every so often, especially when I’m in a rush and the train station is so crowded I can barely move:

Walk walk walk
Do not run
Take it easy and
Have a lot of fun.
If you run,
You may fall,
And tumble over like a ball,
So when at home
Or at school,
Remember this important rule.

He would stand on the stage at the front of the dining room while we were eating lunch and lead us all in a chorus of the song. Every day. And every day, all those little high-pitched voices joyfully sang along.

Another tradition of Rabbi Goldstein’s probably would have gotten him in trouble if he were in any school except a Bais Yaakov. But it was another sign of his genuine caring for us.

We were at the age when our teeth were falling out. It’s exciting, that first loose tooth, that moment when there’s an empty space, when you walk around with an awkward wide grin with your lips positioned just so, to reveal your gummy gap.

Rabbi Goldstein would be available once a day, during morning recess, for any girl whose tooth was about to fall out. He would wiggle it and pronounce it ready, or say one more day, two more days… If it was ready, he would pull it out.

I remember at least one girl being the hero of the day, showing off the tooth that Rabbi Goldstein had pulled out. It was worth more than any tooth fairy could give, to treasure the tooth that Rabbi Goldstein pulled out.

I’ve had this fond memory for ages. When I mentioned it to some friends recently, they were horrified and asked lots of questions about hygiene. No, I don’t know if he washed his hands before he took the tooth in two fingers and wiggled it.

Even writing it now, I’m trying to make it sound the way I remember it – a beautiful moment – and it sounds … wrong. And that’s the funny thing. Because it was a beautiful moment, and it is a beautiful memory.

Is it completely absurd? Absolutely. But Rabbi Goldstein was a sweet, gentle, loving man. And though the expression of it, pulling out girls’ teeth, is pretty much unique to Bais Yaakov I’m sure, that sweet, gentle love was real and genuine and a memory worth treasuring.

Bais Yaakov Taught Me to Do Research

Bais Yaakov provided me with a wonderful foundation for higher learning.

Yes, you read that right.

See, it started in seventh grade navi class.

We were learning about Dovid HaMelech, who had trouble keeping warm later in life. He had disrespected clothing, that time that he stuck it to Shaul by cutting off a piece of his cloak and going “nyah nyah, look how close I got to you, I could have killed you but I didn’t, who’s the bad guy now.” So clothing refused to keep him warm, and an old man has got to keep warm.

The posuk says:

1 And king David was old, he came into his old age, and they covered him with clothes, but he was not warmed. א וְהַמֶּלֶךְ דָּוִד זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַיְכַסֻּהוּ בַּבְּגָדִים וְלֹא יִחַם לוֹ:
2 And his servants said to him, “Let them seek for my lord the king a young girl, a virgin, and she shall stand before the king, and she shall be to him a warmer, and she shall lie in your lap, and it shall be warm for my lord the king.” בוַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ עֲבָדָיו יְבַקְשׁוּ לַאדֹנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ נַעֲרָה בְתוּלָה וְעָמְדָה לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וּתְהִי לוֹ סֹכֶנֶת וְשָׁכְבָה בְחֵיקֶךָ וְחַם לַאדֹנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ:
3 And they sought a beautiful young girl throughout the borders of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunemitess and brought her to the king. גוַיְבַקְשׁוּ נַעֲרָה יָפָה בְּכֹל גְּבוּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּמְצְאוּ אֶת אֲבִישַׁג הַשּׁוּנַמִּית וַיָּבִאוּ אֹתָהּ לַמֶּלֶךְ:
4 And the young girl was very beautiful, and she was a warmer to the king, and she ministered to him, but the king did not know her. דוְהַנַּעֲרָה יָפָה עַד מְאֹד וַתְּהִי לַמֶּלֶךְ סֹכֶנֶת וַתְּשָׁרְתֵהוּ וְהַמֶּלֶךְ לֹא יְדָעָהּ:

My teacher was a lovely girl, straight out of seminary, doing her year of teaching while waiting for her bashert. In seminary they teach you all sorts of wisdom about teaching.

But she must have slept through the day when they discussed how to hide from your students that the Torah actually talks about sex quite openly, even if it was just to clarify that it didn’t happen.

At least we know that she is emesdig and has a hard time lying.

Because when we got to these psukim and she was translating for us, she stuttered and stammered and said, “They found a young girl to keep him warm. We don’t really know what that means.”

I was too young to look in Metsudas Dovid and Metsudas Tzion on my own then, but this struck me as somewhat puzzling. With all those thousands of years of study, had no one attempted an explanation about how a young girl could keep an old king warm?

When I got home from school that day, I expressed my confusion about this to my mother.

“Of course we know what that means!” she said. She didn’t tell me what it means, though.

After that, I knew that whenever a teacher said something that struck me as “off,” I would do well to find out some more on my own. I developed many methods of finding out information, which of course stood me in good stead when I started college.

And I have to say I’m grateful to my naïve and inexperienced and clueless Bais Yaakov teachers for that.

Periods in Bais Yaakov

I had terrible cramps one day in eighth grade, so bad I couldn’t even stand up at recess. I couldn’t tell my teacher what was going on. She knew, of course, which I recognize in retrospect. She crouched down near me, tried to get me to tell her, and when I didn’t, she just said, “Ok, wait here.”

She went to the office and called my mother, who gave me permission to come home. My teacher stayed with me, spoke to me soothingly, until I was able to unfold myself from the desk and straighten up, gather my things, and walk home.

When I was teaching eighth grade, I supervised a sleepover once.

During the night, one girl lay down on the couch and was groaning in pain, asking everyone to leave that room, to be quiet. Her friends got really annoyed with her – this is a sleepover! So what if it’s 1am, we’re going to be up all night!

She was half in tears. I asked her what’s wrong, what hurts, if she wants the girl whose house we were in to get her some Tylenol.

“No, I can’t, I have to take a special medicine!”

Okay, now I was amused. Did she mean Midol?

No, she meant Excedrin. I suggested that the hostess might have some Excedrin in her medicine cabinet – should we ask her?

“No, I need to ask my mother before I take it!”

Well, it was 1am, there was no way I was letting her call her mother to ask if she could take Excedrin. I tried to convince her to take Tylenol, but no go.

She was crying, and holding her arms pressed over her abdomen.

Finally, I crouched down near her. “Look,” I said, “I know it hurts. We all know how bad this can hurt, right?”

Her crying suddenly stopped. Her breathing may have stopped. I went on.

“But it’s not dangerous. If you don’t want to take a painkiller, do some deep breathing, maybe get up and walk around when you feel up to it, and wait for the cramps to pass.”

Still silence from her.

“Because this is your only eighth-grade graduation class party, right? Don’t let this ruin it. Try, okay? Try as much as you can to push past this pain, this pain that all of us here understand, and enjoy tonight as much as you can.”

She nodded then, eyes still wide on me.

I left, to check up on the wild sounds coming from the next room and to make sure the door leading up from the basement was still closed so we didn’t wake the parents.

About an hour later, I saw her sitting with other girls on the sofa in the other room, smiling shakily but smiling nevertheless.

Just Write Teshuva

In twelfth grade, we had a once-a-week class on Yechezkel. The teacher was a respected woman in the community, but her teaching was… kinda boring.

Now, I’ve had teachers with boring teaching styles before. But this one, Rebetzin Wasserman let’s call her, combined a droning voice with repetitions of tired old adages we’d all heard since fifth grade. Plus she taught only in Hebrew, and her Hebrew wasn’t very good.

So basically, for all my goody-goody-ness most of the time, I couldn’t be bothered. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

I chatted my way through her class. Which normally would be fine, and in fact some of my conversation mates got away with it. But that was because they at least pretended to take notes. I didn’t. And I sat in the front row.  

Which all led to my being kicked out of class one day.

I wandered out, dazed and confused (not really) but mostly relieved to be out of that classroom. I spent the period with the girls who always hung out in the stairwell, and was fascinated by this life I’d never known existed behind the walls.

At the end of the period, I said goodbye to my friends-for-an-hour and went back to class. Rebetzin Wasserman didn’t give me detention for cutting class or report me to the principal because she didn’t know my name. She didn’t know anyone’s names.  

A few weeks later, the year was over and we had two weeks of finals. When the Yechezkel final came around, I briefly thought about getting someone’s notes so I could “study.” But I had better ways to spend the evening, and another final (plus regents!) to study for. So I didn’t prepare at all.  

On the day of the test my friends knew I hadn’t paid attention all year and hadn’t asked them for notes, so they knew I wasn’t at all prepared. We knew the test was going to be a format of fill in the blanks and short answers, so they came up with an idea: a suggestion that would help me score something correctly on the test. They advised me to write “teshuva” for every answer on the test.  

I did.  

I got an 85%.

The Singing Principal

Every year before Purim, the school hosts a Purim chagigah. It’s supposed to last the whole morning, meaning we miss all our “Hebrew” (limudei kodesh) classes, and get back to class in time for “English” (secular studies). In practice, we usually got back to class for the third period of afternoon classes.

When I was in twelfth grade, the chagigah ended a bit earlier than usual. It was just past lunchtime, which meant we were barely halfway through the afternoon’s first period. The twelfth grade that year was housed in classrooms on the Mezzanine, where there were no principal’s offices, no eyes from the watchtower. They did have cameras whose feed went to the secretary’s office on the second and third floors, but no actual person of authority was on our floor.

When we got to the Mezzanine after the chagigah ended, no one wanted to go back to class. We wound up sitting on the floor in the corridor, backs against the lockers, forming two long lines. And we started a kumzitz. (I shouldn’t say “we” – I don’t think I actually joined, I just watched from the classroom.)

Teachers were of course not very pleased with this. They wanted us to come to class. But what could they do in the face (looking down at the heads) of a hundred or so girls, sitting with their arms around each other and singing soulful songs?

They tried a few times, but their voices were not really heard, and definitely not listened to.

The singing went on, and faltered only a moment when Rebetzin Kalmanowitz, the principal who everyone loved and no one wanted to disappoint, appeared in the doorway. Determined to sit their ground, the girls kept singing.

Rebetzin Kalmanowitz pulled over a chair from the side of the corridor and set it down at the head of the two lines of girls. They kept singing, but warily, keeping an eye on Rebetzin Kalmanowitz.

She joined in the singing.

Everyone was surprised, and the singing faltered again for a moment, but then went on, stronger and full of joy. She sang one song, two songs, and then in the lull between songs, she said, “Nu, girls, I think it’s time for class?”

And they all went to class.


My elementary school was so large that grades had lunch at different times, and in multiple lunchrooms which doubled as auditoriums with stages at one end. The eighth grade ate in their classrooms because there was just no space for them. But when I was in seventh grade, my grade ate lunch in the large lunchroom with the sixth grade.

We all sat class by class, at long tables arranged, as a friend pointed out when I told her this story, like the Great Hall in Hogwarts. The sixth grade was at the far end of the room, and the seventh grade tables were towards the front, near the stage. Each table was manned (womanned?) by the class’s Hebrew teacher until their English teacher came towards the end of lunch to take over.

After lunch, we were led in bentching (grace after meals) by a few girls, and then we davened mincha (the afternoon prayer).

One day, the principal who usually stood at the front of the room directing everything, from bentching to mincha to class-by-class dismissal, wasn’t there. Another principal, Mrs. Pitkin, took over. But before we could start mincha, she took the microphone and called across to the back of the room.

“Excuse me,” she said, “excuse me, why are those girls standing at the wall? Why are they already davening?”

And all heads swiveled to the back of the room, where a line of five or six sixth-graders were already standing for shmoneh esrai (the standing silent prayer). And immediately the entire room burst into gales of laughter.

Because those five or six girls were not simply standing there, they were shuckling, swaying in concentration, so hard that their ponytails were flopping back and forth over their heads and down their backs as they violently flung their upper bodies back and forth – in concentration, remember.

Their teacher waited until the noise of the laughter had died down, and then called back across the room to Mrs. Pitkin, “Rabbi Eiserman gave them permission to always start earlier.”

There was a pause as Mrs. Pitkin continued looking perplexed, and the teacher added, in a tone which seemed almost ashamed of what she was saying, “because they take a long time to daven. They, um, they have a lot of kavanah (concentration).”

How they could concentrate with hair flying in and out of their eyes, I do not know. How the hanhala could allow such a farcical exhibition of proper davening, I do not know.